Security services could have prevented the Manchester Arena terror attack if they had acted on two intelligences and put the bomber under surveillance, a damning report found today shows.
The blunder was one of six shortcomings of MI5 and the anti-terror police force identified by retired Supreme Court Justice Sir John Saunders in the third and final report of his long-running inquiry.
The bombing, following a concert by American pop singer Ariana Grande on May 22, 2017, killed 22 people and injured hundreds.
Sir John said had the intelligence been investigated the return of murderer Salman Abedi from Libya four days before the attack “would have been taken extremely seriously by the security service”.
The two pieces of crucial information were revealed during 10 days of secret hearings – and have still not been made public.
Sir John said had the intelligence been investigated the return of killer Salman Abedi from Libya four days before the attack “would have been taken extremely seriously by the security service”
But Sir John said if officials had acted on the information and put Abedi, 22, under surveillance, it “could have resulted in him being followed” when he returned to Britain from Libya on May 18, 2017 – four days before the attack.
The research chair said today: “I have not been able to get a full picture of the role the family of Salman Abedi and Hashem Abedi played in their radicalization nor of what happened while they were in Libya.
“That is because other members of the family, namely their parents and brother, were not willing to testify for the investigation.
Salman and Hashem’s parents were invited to make statements but declined to do so. Since they are currently out of jurisdiction, there were no further steps I could take.
‘Ismail Abedi (elder brother), who was in the country at the time I asked for an explanation, managed to leave the UK so he wouldn’t have to give any information he could.
“Whether, if I had succeeded in getting Ismail Abedi on the witness stand, he would have assisted the investigation is highly doubtful.”
Abedi had been in Libya for just over a month when the research chairman said it was likely he had received “specific training in assembling an IED (improvised explosive device)” – and on “how to make a device more lethal than the one is probably the result of the pre-trip preparatory work.
Sir John said spies could track Abedi’s car, which he used to conceal a quantity of TATP known as “Mother of Satan” – the explosive used in the bomb.
He said: “Had security officers successfully tracked the SA to the Nissan Micra, the attack could have been prevented.”
Abedi blew himself up, killing 22 people at the Manchester site in May 2017 (pictured)
Sir John said that Witness C, an MI5 officer who first reviewed both pieces of intelligence, believed that the first had “some national security interests” and the second was a “potential national security concern”.
Witness A and Witness B, two other MI5 agents reviewing the intelligence at the time, said that if they had received “further context” from Witness C on the first piece of information, it “could have led to further investigative steps”.
If the Security Service received the same piece of intelligence today, Abedi would likely be opened as a ‘low-level lead’ investigation and ‘low-level investigations’ would be carried out, in conjunction with the police, Sir John found.
Had the first piece of intelligence been investigated, “there is a material possibility that it would have resulted in the Security Service and/or (police) learning more about Salman Abedi’s activities,” said Sir John – although he added that only information ‘unlikely’ to have discovered the plot.
A range of other shortcomings identified in the report included:
- Abedi is not properly categorized as a formal subject of interest, which would have prompted a formal assessment of the threat he posed. Instead, in 2014 and in 2016, he was categorized as a “de facto” lower-level subject of interest.
- Abedi was not referred to the Prevent deradicalisation program twice, in 2014 and 2015/16.
- Failing to analyze more than 1,000 text messages exchanged between Abedi and an imprisoned Islamic State man, Abdalraouf Abdallah, in 2014.
- A delay in downloading the contents of an illegal mobile phone used by Abdallah in prison, which was seized in February 2017 but not investigated until June 2017, weeks after the bombing.
- The “risky” decision to focus on the terror threat from the then Islamic State “caliphate” in Syria “meant that both the security service and CTPNW (Counter-Terrorism Policing North West) underestimated the risk from Libya in 2017.”
Sir John also highlighted MI5’s 2018 assessment to the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, ‘that (Abedi) had been placed under travel restrictions, there may still not have been sufficient time for his attack planning to be identified or acted upon. Still, it would have resulted in more opportunities.’
Previous evidence for the investigation heard of 18 times Salman Abedi’s name was identified during work by security forces between 2014 and 2018.
His father had previously come to the attention of the security services in 2011 when he was stopped twice in British ports in November of that year.
But Sir John stressed that it was “virtually impossible” to say “whether any other or additional action by the authorities could have prevented the attack.”
The 22 victims of the terror attack at Ariana Grande’s concert at the Manchester Arena in May 2017
The retired judge, whose investigation began in 2020, said it was “highly likely” that Salman Abedi and his brother Hashem, who helped in the bomb plot, “radicalised” in Libya when they were taken there by their parents.
He added: “I also think it is likely that they received some form of training or assistance in building a bomb in Libya, as well as counter-surveillance training.”
Sir John said the threat posed by young Libyans such as Salman Abedi and his brother Hashem – who are currently serving life sentences with a minimum term of 55 years for aiding the attack – was known as far back as 2010.
That year, a “careful assessment” by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center identified “a danger of radicalization of young members of the Libyan community in Manchester” by “older generations,” including al-Qaeda sympathizers.
Sir John said, “That assessment accurately predicted what happened next with Salman Abedi and Hashem Abedi.”
Acknowledging the “very difficult” task of the security services, he said 37 late-stage terror attacks had been disrupted since 2017 alone.
“If the security or counter-terrorism police make mistakes, they must be identified and steps taken to rectify them,” said Sir John.
The report found that Abedi had been radicalized by his family – according to his parents held extremist views – and friends.
“He had almost no close ties or friendships that would bind him to law-abiding society,” said Sir John.
His report also found that Salman and Hashem Abedi had been radicalized by his Islamist extremist father Ramadan Abedi and mother, Samia Tabbal, both now in Libya, mixed with jihadist associates around Manchester, and taken to Libya during the civil war in the country.
Three main UK-based extremists were identified as influencers of Salman Abedi – Abdallah, who was jailed for nine and a half years for recruiting extremists to join Islamic State in Syria, Raphael Hostey, a jihadist from Manchester who wife and child to join ISIS and was killed in a drone strike in Syria in 2016, and pastor Mansoor al-Anezi.
Al-Anezi, arrested as part of an investigation into a failed suicide bombing by Muslim convert Nicky Reilly in Exeter in 2008, was in contact with Salman and Hashem more than four months before his death in January 2017 and the Abedi brothers attended his funeral.
Sir John found that online material may also have “fueled their radicalization by glorifying the actions of the Islamic State.”
“The material encouraged armed struggle and martyrdom. It directed anger and hatred at Western society,” he said.
The inquiry chairman said his recommendations to the security services will be published in a confidential document at a later date.
He said: ‘There was a significant missed opportunity to take action that could have prevented the attack.
“The reasons for this significant missed opportunity included the fact that a security officer did not act quickly enough.”